Speaking at the Davos, former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger counseled Ukraine to cede Russia territory in order to end the war. “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said last month. “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.” Make no mistake: Kissinger is wrong. Rather than bring peace, his advice would spark future conflict by teaching Russia that aggression brings rewards. Kissinger’s remarks did not come from nowhere, however. He has spent more than two decades excusing Moscow’s abuse of its neighbors while forging a personal friendship with Vladimir Putin.
Kissinger has long been the prince of so-called “realism.” For decades before his secret 1971 visit, Communist China was an international pariah. Kissinger brokered rapprochement, however, to make common cause against the Soviet Union. He later argued China was simply the lesser of two evils. “The difference between [China] and the Russians is,” he quipped, “if you drop some loose change, when you go to pick it up, the Russians will step on your fingers and the Chinese won’t.”
After the Cold War, Kissinger began to advocate a far softer line toward the Russians. More than two decades ago, Kissinger said, “I believed that the Soviet Union should not abandon Eastern Europe so quickly.” Russian President Vladimir Putin seized upon the comment as intellectual sustenance. The two men then met regularly. Kissinger, who called Putin a “great patriot,” hosted the Russian leader at his house in New York for dinner. Putin reciprocated and flattered Kissinger for his knowledge of Russian culture and made him honorary professor of the Diplomatic Academy of Russia.
For Putin, Kissinger became a useful tool given the esteem with which so many in Washington held the former secretary. Before Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Kissinger characterized the Kremlin’s foreign policy under Putin “as driven in a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice” and urged America to “show greater sensitivity to Russian complexities.” When Putin invaded the former Soviet Republic in August 2008, Kissinger dismissed it as a “crisis,” not a war, and advised that “isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-range policy.” Kissinger’s trust in Putin appears to have colored President Barack Obama’s embrace of a “reset” with Russia that, in turn, allowed Russia to act with impunity and obscured the threat Putin posed.